High Tech Top 10

These days a lot of cars can go fast in a straight line, corner with aplomb and stop on a Euro. But if you want to win the favor of technical fanatics those attributes aren't enough. In fact, it seems like they hardly even count.

Today, many high-tech junkies see cars as simple carrying platforms for sophisticated devices that aid communication, navigation and even mastication. (Okay, the last is a stretch but nav systems that offer restaurant information qualify.) So who tracks these technological marvels? None other than a publication called IEEE Spectrum, a monthly published by IEEE, which claims to be the world's largest organization of technology and business leaders. Recently IEEE Spectrum issued a list of the top 10 most technically sophisticated cars for 2003, and the list is illuminating.

In compiling the Top 10, the publication surveyed currently available cars and current concept vehicles and then selected vehicles based on the most significant technological changes. What it identified were vehicles that feature techno-cool technologies such as fingerprint access systems; Bluetooth wireless technology; natural gas (which, depending on the circumstances might not be so cool); zero-emissions propulsion systems; voice-activated devices; and night vision. Austin Powers would dig this stuff, baby.

So, without further ado, the High-Tech Top 10:

1. Volvo Safety Concept Car shows safety beyond the box including night vision and see-through A-pillars; controls for automated seat, pedal and floor adjustment; warning systems that cover blind spots; and moving headlights that follow the lead of the front wheels as they turn. (This last feature, called Pilot Ray in the old days, was an aftermarket option on many 1930s models and appeared on the 1948 Tucker Torpedo.)

2. Saab 9-3 is the first car equipped with Bluetooth wireless technology that connects wireless devices that obey the driver's voice. Thus the driver can operate cellphones, PDAs and computers through a voice-control system. If only children responded to voice control.

3. Honda Civic GX relies solely on natural gas as its fuel. The car is sold with a home fueling station that will feed off of a home's piped-in cooking gas to refill the compressed-gas tanks overnight.

4. Honda FCX is the first car for the U.S. market that will be powered purely by fuel cells. It meets zero-emissions standards by exhaling only water vapor.

5. Cadillac XLR uses several high-tech features to control the ample output of its 4.6-liter V-8 engine in a modern version of the rear-wheel-drive configuration.

6. Audi A8 has one central control system -- called Multi-Media Interface -- that manages a mobile telephone, satellite navigation system, tautness of the air suspension system as well as audio, heating, air conditioning and assorted goodies. Unfortunately, it will not set up your favorite shows on TiVo.

7. Mercedes-Benz SL500 equips the driver with a more sensitive, computer-assisted response to crises, though not of a personal nature. (Hair loss? Mid-life crisis? You're on your own.) The braking system links seamlessly to a stability control system and an active suspension system, which helps keep the tires of the car on the ground when taking a corner.

8. A Chevrolet Trailblazer concept houses a new engine technology under its hood that switches half the cylinders on or off, depending on the load. (Cadillac tried this in the early Eighties and it sucked, but this time it might work.)

9. Toyota Prius uses a gasoline/electric motor hybrid propulsion system that has an output of a small (1.5-liter) engine, while cutting emissions drastically.

10. Fiat Stilo is a smokeless diesel with a 1.2-liter, four-cylinder engine. (Okay, that's not that big a deal, but the magazine did want to name 10.)